Pro-Russia Policy Stalls Afghan Copters; Moscow Demands Sole-Source Role

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Byline: Bill Gertz, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

A Pentagon program to rush 21 helicopters to Afghan military forces in time for this summer's fighting season was derailed by the Obama administration's conciliatory policy toward Russia and by Army procurement missteps amid allegations of corruption, according to current and former defense officials and military contractors.

Four Russian-made Mi-17 dual-use civilian-military helicopters were sent to Afghanistan in September 2009 under a competitively bid Navy contract that delivered the aircraft in a record 45 days.

But eight other helicopters that were painted in Afghan National Army Air Corps colors are now sitting in a warehouse in Slovakia because their delivery was blocked in November by the Russian government. The reason: Moscow demanded the Pentagon use the state arms trader Rosoboronexport as the sole-source contractor for the helicopters.

The contract change boosted costs by tens of millions of dollars and delayed further deliveries until later this year, at the earliest, according to officials involved in the procurement.

Gaining political points with the Russians trumped meeting military requirements, and as a result we have a one-year delay in getting aircraft into Afghanistan, said John J. Young, former undersecretary of defense for acquisition under President George W. Bush.

Mr. Young said he is encouraged that Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Ashton Carter, current undersecretary of defense for acquisition, are reviewing the delays.

I think they want to see equipment delivered to the Afghan forces, so the Afghan government can assume greater responsibility for the security of their country, Mr. Young said.

The 21 additional Mi-17s could have been purchased legally by private companies directly from the Russian manufacturer, like some 36 others purchased by the U.S. government in the past several years for Iraq and Pakistan, through U.S., Russian and East European brokers.

The reason private companies were used as middlemen was that U.S. companies until recently were barred from using Rosoboronexport, after the arms exporter was slapped with U.S. economic sanctions in 2008 for selling weapons to Iran and China.

The Obama administration in May lifted the sanctions as part of its so-called reset policy with Russia and opened the helicopter deal to Moscow's bureaucratic red tape and corruption, according to officials involved with weapons procurement.

A 2008 cable from then-U.S. Ambassador to Russia William J. Burns, currently awaiting confirmation as deputy secretary of state, said Russia ignores most U.S. protests about its weapons exports and uses arms sales to Iran, Syria and other rogue states to undermine U.S. interests.

Russia attaches importance to the volume of the arms-export trade, to the diplomatic doors that weapon sales open, to the ill-gotten gains that these sales reap for corrupt senior officials, and to the lever it provides the Russian government in stymieing American interests, Mr. Burns said in a secret cable made public by WikiLeaks.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said the Mi-17s are military helicopters and that Moscow made the decision that the export of helicopters for Afghanistan needed to go through Rosoboronexport.

The Russian government's decision did cause a delay, because it required us to restart the process, he said. However, the longest source of delays in terms of days has been working through the bid protests, some of which predate the Russian government's decision.

Defense Technology Inc., the Huntsville, Ala.-based Navy contractor, took the Pentagon to court over the sole-source Rosoboronexport contract and lost.

The company, according to its president, Mark Young, was notified in December that its contract for the 21 Mi-17s was canceled and that eight remaining Mi-17s waiting to be delivered were put on hold after the Army said all sales had to go through Rosoboronexport. …