Defense officials say that helicopters from a Russian-run arms company are the Pentagon's only supply option for the Afghan air force, but a military source tells U.S. News & World Report the Defense Department is paying too much for the new choppers.
For several years, the Pentagon has been buying Mi-17 helicopters from Rosoboronexport, a Russian government-run arms manufacturer, because Afghan military crews are most familiar with those units.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby told reporters Tuesday that the Rosoboronexport deal is the only "legal" mechanism at the Pentagon's disposal through which it can supply the country's fledgling air force with transport helicopters.
Not so, says the military source. Richard Aboulafia, a military aviation expert with the Teal Group, also shot down the department's legal claim.
"I've looked into this a bit," Aboulafia says. "There's nothing about the Russian export agency's mandate that can stop DoD or the State Department from buying from elsewhere."
Pentagon officials have countered claim, saying other options would invite Russian interference and be too costly.
Those helos became a major issue earlier this week, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said U.S. officials are pressing Russia to shut down shipments of Rosoboronexport helicopters to Syria's military for use against rebel fighters and civilians. Human rights activists say the Russian choppers aid in "crimes against humanity." Pentagon spokesmen then spent several days casting the Syrian shipments and Afghanistan transactions as totally separate matters.
"I am furious that we are still giving money to Rosoboronexport," says one military official intimately familiar with the Pentagon's deal with the Russian arms manufacturer. "We can and should be giving business to those licensed companies that are allies."
The military source, who has been working Russian and Asian issues for a decade and has been very involved in the Russian helicopter industry, acknowledges Russian-made helicopters "are the best fit for the Afghan air force."
As an example, the source points to the Afghan air force's need for 30 Rosoboronexport Mi-17 transport helicopters that will be used special operations unit.
Instead of buying brand new airframes from the Russian company, the Pentagon could cut the price by as much as half by allowing firms in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary or Poland to upgrade Mi-17s already in the Afghan fleet, the military source says.
"Several countries are fully licensed to do refurbishment," the military source says. "Using refurbished helos will cost half of what new ones cost. So instead of giving $1 billion to Rosoboronexport, we can give $500 million to our allies."
Aboulafia says the Pentagon might also save money if it went shopping for used Rosoboronexport-made aircraft.
"The demand from these helicopters has been strong, so there might be some Eastern European countries that would sell some for Afghanistan," the analyst says. "I'm just not sure [U.S. officials] looked closely at alternatives to buying new ones."
The military source describes a collective attitude in the Pentagon and in Afghanistan where decision-makers "have blinders and just want to throw [money] at the problem—pay the Russians and get it over with."
But a Pentagon official tells U.S. News & World Report the situation is more complex, saying that the process of upgrading existing Afghan aircraft with firms outside of Russia would require multiple modifications, and that would simply become too costly and time consuming.
Under agreements between non-Russian companies and Moscow's Military Design Bureau, non-Russian firms are required to "return the aircraft to the original design configuration and specifications."
That would set off a process where commercial helicopters that Rosobornexport converted into military aircraft would have to be reset to the original commercial specifications.
"For example, the Defense Department presented a civilian aircraft that was modified with armament," says the Pentagon official. "It was returned by the overhaul facility in the approved civilian configuration along with loose, removed parts from the [military] modification."
Non-Russian firms that have agreements with Rosobornexport would risk losing their business with the state-run company, which is a major arms player in that region. The Pentagon official says that's a risk few want to take.
This kind of scenario could invite "Russian interference," the Pentagon official says, adding U.S. officials have discussed allowing licensed firms to do more overhaul work on Rosobornexport choppers for the Afghan air force with their Russian counterparts.
The situation has created a political headache for the Obama administration, which has so far has resisted becoming directly involved in Syria's civil war—even while Moscow supplies Bashir al-Assad's military with sophisticated weapons.
"The administration got through a similar thing last year in Libya," Aboulafia says. "They'll get through this."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.
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