The Pentagon will not buy more helicopters for the Afghan military from a Russian contractor that is believed to also supply weapons to the Bashar Assad regime for its ongoing civil war in Syria.
Members of Congress have accused Moscow-based Rosoboronexport of selling weapons to the Syrian regime as a part of, according to Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a "morally bankrupt policy." The state-backed export firm has also been the chief supplier to the U.S. of Russian-made Mi-17s, the principal helicopter of the fledgling Afghan air force.
Cornyn has led a group of lawmakers aligned with human rights organizations that have opposed the U.S. purchase of weapons from the company.
The Defense Department confirmed Tuesday it will no longer purchase aircraft from Rosoboronexport, according to spokeswoman Maureen Schumann, now that it has completed its fiscal year '13 purchases of Mi-17s bound for Afghanistan. The Pentagon had proposed spending $345 million for 15 more helicopters in 2014.
"After initially requesting funds from Congress in the fiscal 14 budget to provide additional enhancements for the Afghan National Security Forces, the department has re-evaluated requirements in consultation with Congress," wrote Schumann in an email. "We currently do not have plans to purchase additional Mi17s from Rosoboronexport beyond those in the Afghan Program of Record."
She did not provide any additional information on why the Pentagon chose to end its plans to purchase more helicopters.
Advocacy group Human Rights First applauded the end of the U.S. deal with what it calls "a weapons dealer that has enabled mass atrocities."
"This is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do," said Sonni Efron, a senior government fellow at Human Rights First, according to a release. "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."
Cornyn sponsored an amendment in June, following a $572 million deal Rosobornexport signed with the Pentagon, calling for a ban on the contractor.
"I want to take this opportunity to say, once again, that American taxpayers should not be indirectly subsidizing the murder of Syrian civilians, especially when there are perfectly good alternatives to dealing with Rosoboronexport," he said at the time.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., sponsored an amendment in the latest fiscal 14 defense budget bill that would prohibit the U.S. from purchasing equipment from Rosoboronexport unless certain conditions are met, such as prohibiting it from continued sales to the Syrian regime.
Afghan authorities and U.S. advisers in-country agree that the Mi-17 is best suited to the rugged terrain and high altitudes there, as well as the limited experience of the Afghan military. The Russian helicopters have a significantly simpler design than the UH-60 Black Hawk – the workhorse of the American military – making them an easier platform for Afghan military trainees. They are also better suited to the thin, hot Afghan air and can fly at higher altitudes than the Black Hawk to accommodate Afghanistan's soaring peaks.