An Afghan air force flies an Mi-17 transport to Orgun-e on July 1, 2010.

An Afghan air force flies an Mi-17 transport to Orgun-e on July 1, 2010. 438th Air Expeditionary Wing by Capt. Robert Leese

Pure Home-State Politics Behind Russian Helicopter Opposition

Pressure is building to halt a Pentagon deal with a Russian state arms dealer to supply aircraft for the Afghan Air Force. By Billy House

Pentagon commitments to purchase MI-17 transport helicopters from a Russian company for the Afghan military would be scrapped under legislation that is gaining attention this week, championed by lawmakers partial to their home-state helicopter manufacturers.

The lawmakers’ objectives may be rooted in parochial concerns over tough times facing the U.S. helicopter industry, says Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea is enabling the effort “to attach itself to a broader agenda—with bipartisan support,” he says.

“I think the issue has united home-state interests with what’s viewed as a ‘higher purpose,’ ” Thompson said.

Future purchases of the helicopters made by Russian state arms dealer Rosoboron export already have been barred as a result of lawmaker concerns last year that the company was supplying arms to Syria, even though U.S. military officials have said the Russian-made craft is preferred in this instance over American models, in part because the Afghan forces have experience operating it.

But this week, pressure is mounting in both chambers—and in both parties—to also halt the procurement of at least 18 undelivered helicopters that are already part of Pentagon commitments totaling about $1 billion. If the orders were completed, it would mean that a total of 63 helicopters have been supplied to the Afghan Air Force.

In the Senate, a bipartisan group of lawmakers have introduced the Russian Weapons Embargo Act of 2014, which would forbid “the direct or indirect use of American tax dollars to enter contracts or agreements with Rosoboron export and immediately terminate existing contracts and agreements with the agency.”

The legislation, which sponsors want to be considered in a markup of the National Defense Authorization Act this week by the Senate Armed Services Committee, also would prohibit contracts with any domestic or foreign company that cooperates with Rosoboronexport to design, manufacture, or sell military equipment.

“The hostile situation in Ukraine is yet another recent example of why the United States should stop doing business with Russia and its arms dealer,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who introduced the measure along with Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Dan Coats, R-Ind.

Blumenthal’s state is home to Sikorsky Aircraft, which could be a beneficiary should the agreements with the Russian arms dealer be canceled. In comments on the Senate floor in late October, Blumenthal said, “I may be partial to helicopters made in Connecticut. The best helicopters in the world are made in Connecticut by the Sikorsky employees....”

But Blumenthal, a member of the Armed Services Committee, then went on to allege that “the contract to award these helicopters was managed in a way to prevent American helicopter companies from bidding on the work.” Blumenthal said a 2010 Defense Department analysis concluded that the Boeing-made CH-47D Chinook helicopter is the most cost-effective American option for the Afghan Air Force over a 20-year life cycle.

Although that is not a Sikorsky craft, Blumenthal said, “at the end of the day, ‘Made in the USA’ ought to be the ruling principle. Made in the USA—American helicopters for the American military and American allies.”

Cornyn, whose state is home to Bell Helicopter, said, “Considering Rosoboronexport’s close connection with Vladimir Putin and his cronies, and its ties to brutal dictators who’ve committed mass atrocities, there is no reason for our military to continue to rely on equipment from thugs masquerading as a legitimate business.”

Meanwhile, Indianapolis is home to the Raytheon Analysis & Test Laboratory, a former U.S. Navy avionics test lab with expertise in developing flight computers and warfare systems for attack helicopters. “Given Russia’s hostile actions in Ukraine, business as usual is unacceptable,” Coats said.

In the House, Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro, whose district includes Sikorsky and who has fought the Rosoboronexport helicopter purchases for several years, also reinvigorated her efforts. House Rules Committee aides say they expect at least one of two amendments to the defense authorization bill that she has proposed to be cleared for floor action later this week.

According to summaries provided by DeLauro’s office, one amendment would “prohibit contracts or subcontracts” with Rosoboronexport and “requires the termination of any current contract with the firm.” The amendment would also bar the Pentagon from entering contracts “with any foreign company that cooperates with Rosoboronexport to design, manufacture, or sell military equipment.”

The other amendment would block the Pentagon from entering into a contract with Rosoboronexport unless the secretary of Defense, in consultation with the secretary of State and director of national intelligence, certifies that the firm has ceased transferring weapons to Syria, Russia has pulled out of Crimea, Russian forces have withdrawn from the eastern border of Ukraine, and Russia is not otherwise actively destabilizing Ukraine.

Thompson, the defense analyst, says the fact that efforts to sanction Russia are linked to home-state interests does not mean these lawmakers are advocating for a lesser product. The best product, he said, is one that also falls in line with the nation’s policy goals and needs.

“The Soviets may have had the best rifle in World War II,” he said. “But that did not mean it was in the best national interest for us to buy those rifles.”