The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

December 7, 2013

Rough ride for U.S.-Russia copter deal

(Continued)

Just a few weeks after the secret study was completed, Army Secretary John McHugh wrote in a 2011 memo "that the Mi-17 stands apart" when compared with other helicopters.

The Pentagon denies it misled Congress.

A senior department official said the study was focused on long-term requirements and not the immediate needs of the Afghan military, which were best met by the Mi-17. Also, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan wanted the Mi-17 because it is durable, easy-to-operate and the Afghan forces had experience flying it, according to the official, who was not authorized to be identified as the source of the information.

There's no dispute that heavy-duty helicopters capable of quickly moving Afghan troops and supplies are essential to accomplishing that mission. But the decision to acquire them from Russia has achieved the rare feat in a deeply divided Congress of finding common ground among Republicans and Democrats.

Why, lawmakers from both political parties have demanded, is the U.S. purchasing military gear from Russia?

After all, Russia has sold advanced weapons to repressive government in Syria and Iran, sheltered NSA leaker Edward Snowden, and been criticized by the State Department for adopting laws that restrict human rights.

On top of all that, corruption is rampant in Russia's defense industry, they say, heightening concerns that crooked government officials and contractors are lining their pockets with American money.

"The lack of straightforward information from the Pentagon on the ability of American-made helicopters to meet the mission in Afghanistan is but another factor severely undermining their credibility and justification for pursuing this sorely misguided procurement," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a high-ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

Overall, 63 Mi-17s are being acquired through the 2011 contract. It was awarded without competition to Russia's arms export agency, Rosoboronexport, even though the Pentagon condemned the agency after its weapons were used by Syria to "murder Syrian civilians."

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