WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. military officials insisted a top-secret Pentagon study proved the need to buy Russian helicopters for Afghanistan’s security forces. But the study actually recommended an American-made rotorcraft, according to unclassified excerpts obtained by The Associated Press.
The excerpts show the U.S. Army’s workhorse Chinook, built by Boeing Co. in Pennsylvania, was ‘‘the most cost-effective single platform type fleet for the Afghan Air Force over a 20-year’’ period.
The finding has triggered allegations the Defense Department misled members of Congress and improperly cut U.S. companies out of competing for a contract that has swelled to more than $1 billion.
More than two years since DOD announced it was acquiring Russian Mi-17 helicopters, a veil of secrecy still obscures the pact despite its high-dollar value, the potential for fraud and waste, and accusations the Pentagon muffled important information.
The unprecedented arms deal also serves as a reminder to a war-weary American public that Afghanistan will remain heavily dependent on U.S. financial support even after its combat troops depart.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s No. 2 GOP leader, said DOD ‘‘repeatedly and disingenuously’’ used the 2010 study to justify the Russian helicopter as the superior choice for the Afghans.
Congress only recently received a copy of the document.
‘‘So why are we buying Russian helicopters when there are American manufacturers that can meet that very same requirement?’’ Cornyn asked
As recently as September, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter cited the study in a letter to House members defending the Mi-17 decision. Carter left his job this past week.
Last year, Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, and policy chief James Miller pointed to the study in a written response to questions posed by Cornyn.
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.’’
No Pentagon official was made available to speak on the record for this story. The department declined AP’s request that it release unclassified portions of the 2010 study and other records supporting the decision to buy Mi-17s instead of Chinooks or other helicopters.
The armed Mi-17s being purchased for Afghanistan from Rosoboronexport will replace older and less capable Mi-17s the U.S. and other countries had purchased from brokers and contractors through the open market and then donated or loaned to the Afghans.
The fact that the Afghan forces had years of experience flying the Mi-17 figured prominently in the Pentagon’s decision.Continued...